Responding to Writing in Workshop

All writing is treated as fiction.

No criticism, suggestion, or questions are directed toward the writer in response to first-draft writing.

Do not respond by recalling a memory or story. If the memory is a strong one, then write the story and share it with workshop writers.

Do not address the writer as you, as if the voice of the speaker, the storyteller, the narrator of the writing is the same person as the one workshop reader/writer; instead, say the narrator or name the characters. This is our practice even when the writing is written in the first person, I, even when the writer tells us it is true or autobiographical.

Do not refer to a character as a real person rather than an imagined character, for example a family member, such as the character my mother, is not the writer’s mother, ie. your mother. She is the mother character.

Do not recall all your thoughts and feelings. Limit your response to one or two aspects of the writing that stood out for you. Leave room for others to comment.

Writing that has newly come from the pen of a writer should be listened to with care. New writing is as fragile and raw as a newborn and should be treated as respectfully, as tenderly.

•    Do not make overt or subtle suggestions for change.
•    Do not tell one’s own story, ie. This reminds me when I…
•    Do not question
•    Do not express doubt or disbelief
•    Do not describe writing as derivative, overly familiar or clichéd
•    Do not express dislike or disinterest in narrator, voice or character
•    Do not respond with like unless you point to particular words, phrases, actions, etc.

What is helpful is to listen to the writer, then give back what you remember, what stays with you. Each writer is finding his or her way to voice. It cannot be coerced, and it cannot be given form or shape by anyone else.
                    --adapted from Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and with Others

Suggestions for responding:
  • I remember
  • What is strong
  • What is powerful
  • What is brave
  • What stays with me
  • What moves me
  • What surprises me
Point to specific elements by repeating:
Words
Phrases
Sounds
Sentences
Images
Metaphor

Respond as reader, not a critic:
I understand
I get
I see
I hear
I feel




 
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The Cheese...

The Cheese Man

In my youth, Fridays were an important day. My dad got paid, grandma made her trip upstate for the weekend, and the cheese man came.
I cannot recall how the cheese man came into our lives, but come he did, slowly and stealthily at first, and then with a dependable frequency that couldn’t be denied.
I vaguely recall his first visit. We had two driveways from which one could enter our property. The driveway that the cheese man chose to use was a pot hole- filled- with- dust and gravel kind of driveway. He was driving a 1961 black Chrysler Saratoga with wide whitewalls and chrome headlights. He drove slowly as not to kick up dust on that hot, dry August day, and out of the corner of her eye as she took clothes off of the line, my mother saw him well before she heard those whitewalls crunching down.
She  stopped with my brother’s diapers in one hand and the wooden clothespins in the other. She never took her eyes off the cheese man as she bent down to put the diapers in the basket and the clothespins in their bag.
“Can I help you?” she lightly called from her stance.
The cheese man walked to the back of his car and opened the trunk.
I suppose that it was more curiosity than fear which gave my mom the courage to walk towards the man and his car. A pungent, but not necessarily undesirable, smell wafted the air as she approached.
The cheese man stood alongside the opened trunk and with his hands gestured for her to come closer and peek inside. With the smell now undeniably coming from within, she peered inside.
All sizes and shapes of cheese lined the trunk. The hard cheeses were squares and rectangles wrapped in brown paper, where they lay at the bottom. Softer cheeses wrapped in cloth were on top of them. Balls of cheese cradled in hammock-like rope hung from the top of the trunk’s insides. A metal scale , impaled by a hook joined the roped cheeses, so that when the trunk opened it would be ready for business. Towards the anterior, salamis were tucked away in empty corners.
“I can cut anything you like” he said matter- of- factly.
My mother’s eyes were wide open in wonder. She became transported to the cheese markets of her youth, and she marveled at the compactness and completeness of this store on wheels.
She looked up at the roped balls.
“How much for one of those?”
The cheese man took one down and placed it, rope and all, onto the scale. The scale number said 2.
“Give it to you for three.”
Mom’s eyebrows went up.
“I’ll take it.”
As he handed her the cheese on a rope, she reached into her apron and pulled out a five dollar bill. I knew from listening to my parents that five dollars was half a day’s pay for my father. Why my mother had that large amount of money in her apron I didn’t know, but I knew that my father would be furious that she spent three dollars for cheese on a rope.
The cheese man took the bill from her and put it into a metal box which was also in the trunk. He extracted two dollar bills from it and handed them to my mother.
“I’ll come by every Friday.” And with that, as my mother and I stood along the pot-holed, graveled driveway, she holding a cheese on a rope, and me shading my eyes with my hands from the sun, he closed the trunk, got into his car, and drove away.
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The Door Rattles When She Steps In

 The door rattles when she steps in.

The floors creak in agreement.

The birds wait their turn to twitter,

And the trees sway in the wind


The windows rattle when she calls.

The clouds reply with thunder's voice,

Hail hammers the rain gutters

And traffic slows to a crawl.


Foundations falter when she finds fault.

The walls, like curtains, tremble.

The furniture vibrates, slides askew,

And knickknacks fall from the shelves.


The breeze whistles when she sings.

The sun shines down on every note.

The birds return in harmony

And thunder stops to listen.

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Featured

Birding with a two-year-old in San Francisco

Melissa Fischer, Artist


I scan the ochre-colored sandy path closely as Paul and I walk beside the canal, he sometimes riding, sometimes pushing his tricycle. I'm intrigued by the houseboats lining the canal. Who lives in them? What are their lives like? I've been fascinated with houseboats ever since having a childhood friend who had lived for a time on a houseboat. The path is lined with pines and other trees I can't identify– the flora here in California is so different from that of the Northeast. There are birds, many species new to me, in these trees, and I have binoculars in my pocket.

The binoculars remain in my pocket, though, and I barely glance at the birds, much as I am drawn to them. I continue to closely watch the path ahead, making sure my active grandson doesn't step in the wrong place anywhere along the path. There's actually surprisingly little dog waste given the tremendous number and fascinating variety of dogs to be seen anywhere one goes around here– from tiny Chihuahuas to towering Great Danes, from a diminutive nine-week-old Shiba Inu that looks like a bright-eyed teddy bear to two lumbering Newfoundlands who look like real bears. The vast majority of dogs here are social and well-behaved, and I'm guessing that the vast majority of dog owners are considerate and responsible about cleaning up.

Apparently not everyone takes advantage of the conveniently placed poop clean-up bag dispensers and attached garbage cans, though. What I'm most concerned about Paul stepping in is human waste. I know from an earlier walk with Paul that there is some along this path, thankfully covered with a little paper, but obviously something to keep my quicksilver grandson from inadvertently running in. I also want to be sure Paul doesn't jump on the navy blue sleeping bag, unzipped and spread out right beside the path, that I'm pretty sure is sheltering a sleeping person. That would be an unwelcome surprise and rude awakening for the sleeper.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I see a movement above me and I look up and see a very small, fairly nondescript, drab-colored bird fly from the pine branches above me as another alights in the same low branches, then immediately disappears! I glance ahead along the path, then tell Paul there's a bird in the tree even though I can't see it. I've been teaching him some basic bird species and he's been quite interested, though he's generally ready to move on pretty quickly. The branches are low and not particularly dense. Where could the bird have gone?

The binoculars still heavy in my pocket, I glance back and forth from Paul to the branches overhead. And then I see it: a beautifully fashioned, perfectly camouflaged, narrow tube-shaped nest with a small opening near the top, hanging from one of the branches, partially obscured by the needles of another branch. It appears to be made of moss, the same color as the surrounding pine needles. I never would have noticed it if I hadn't been alerted by the quick movement of the parent birds.

At that moment Paul spots a rock on the path a little way ahead– round and white with small black speckles, about the size of his fist. Running to it in delight, he picks up the rock, looks at it closely, then adds it to the treasures he's already collected in the compartment on the back of his tricycle, and we continue on our way.

The next day, my last before returning home, I once again take Paul out on his tricycle for a walk along the canal, hoping to look more closely at the hanging moss nest and the birds whose home it is. We don't get any farther than the sleeping bag that's still beside the path, however, because just at that spot, without any warning, Paul's tricycle suddenly collapses and falls apart into three separate pieces! Thankfully he's been walking, not riding the tricycle, so though startled, he's not hurt.

As quickly as I can, which isn't very quick due to my lack of tricycle assembly experience, I reassemble the tricycle, only to have it immediately collapse once more in a heap in the sandy path. All the while Paul is providing shrill two-year-old commentary, and soon the sleeping bag stirs, revealing a sleepy older woman's face. I apologize for disturbing her rest and tell her we'll be on our way as soon as possible. After a short time that seems long, probably to all three of us, I finally get the tricycle precariously assembled and we head home where Nathaniel will do what dads do– repair broken toys.

I never do get back to see the hanging moss nest, but I have a clear enough memory of it and the birds to look them up and identify them as Bushtits– a new species to add to my life list of birds I've identified! I also have memories of a delighted boy holding a round white rock with small black speckles, a tricycle collapsing into pieces on a sandy path beside house boats, and a sleepy older woman patiently watching a baffled young boy trying loudly to grasp what had just happened to his hitherto unquestionably reliable tricycle.

Birding in a city neighborhood with a curious two-year old is nothing like strolling quietly, binoculars in hand, through the dense woods and open fields I'm accustomed to, but it, too, is rich with moments of delight and wonder.

"Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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